Noah Baumbach’s Best Picture and Best Director Oscar-nominated “Marriage Story” is a witty, emotional family drama that has also yielded acting nominations for leads Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver and supporting actress Laura Dern, and they all took their well-written dialogue (also nominated for an Oscar) and executed it beautifully. I was already eager to read between the lines about Baumbach’s real life, which does feature a divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, with whom he has a child. Now, the Oscars drama surrounding his new partner, Greta Gerwig — who also has a film, “Little Women,” in contention for Best Picture, but not garnering her own Best Director nomination — is really giving us multiple marriage stories to gnaw on.
Oh, and Dern is in both projects. Plus, Johansson’s character in “Marriage Story” is an actress who really wants to direct; and as an actress, Gerwig was often referred to as Baumbach’s muse before directing her masterpiece, “Lady Bird.” “Little Women” is certainly about women trying to achieve recognition for their artistic endeavors in a man’s world. Forget Marvel — this is the cinematic universe I need 50 more movies from.
But I will reluctantly consider “Marriage Story” on its own merits now, and there are many. Driver’s magnetic talent and wholly original presence has been evident from the minute he turned up in HBO’s “Girls.” Here, he portrays Charlie, a stage director who is made aware of his shortcomings as a husband when his wife, Nicole (Johansson), an actress who abandoned a burgeoning screen career in L.A. to pursue dreams more closely aligned with his, finally finds a way to air her grievances: a divorce.
When the film begins, the couple has already begun to break up, and this story brings out the problems in their marriage through the legal lens of their custody fight, specifically which coast to live on. L.A. begins to represent Nicole, while Charlie is New York. The plot is rather simple; it really is a character study and they are well-drawn characters. I think I prefer Baumbach’s other divorce drama, “The Squid and the Whale,” however. That one was inspired by his parents’ divorce and set in the 1970s. This one was inspired by his own divorce and has a ’70s “Kramer vs. Kramer” vibe.
Specificity is the key to this kind of movie and that’s what gives it the authenticity viewers connect with. The film opens with a sweet and romantic list of what each character loves about the other one, an unabashedly sentimental device that gives us something to mourn as the two commit to uncoupling. Immediately we learn this is a list their mediator assigned them to make, and only we viewers are privy to it; they refuse to actually read these tender lists to one another.
The couple’s respective legal representation are shrewd, harsh foils to their stated goals of not being too aggressive with each other and remaining friends. Dern is so expertly manipulative that it is almost played for laughs, while Driver employs, first, a nice lawyer, played by Alan Alda, and then a bulldog, played by Ray Liotta. Both serve the film well. Johansson has not been this expressive since she was a child with brimming eyes in “The Horse Whisperer,” while Driver delivers another performance that only he could, every line reading odd and true.
If anything, “Marriage Story” seems too easy, too on the nose for everyone involved; it is exactly the perfect, crisp Baumbach movie it seems to be and, of course, when we watch it, we wince and laugh and cry. I like that kind of movie and I liked this one, but was it the Best Picture of the year? I certainly preferred “Little Women,” and I thought Dern served “steely female resolve with impossibly long limbs” better in it. Although an adaptation of a well-known story, “Little Women” was more surprising and inventive.
Sometimes a movie, TV show or book comes along that is so much like something you know you like, you feel like you have already seen it, and “Marriage Story” was such a film for me. It was great; it was interesting, funny and emotional, but it didn’t demand to be seen. It was not vital, thrilling or unexpected. If you like talky, intellectual movies about relationships (I do!) you will like this one (I did!) but this was not the unforgettable cinematic experience one feels should be declared Best Picture.
“Marriage Story” is currently streaming on Netflix.
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